The Homestead Act of 1862 was a federal law promoting westward expansion by allotting 160 acres of free public land to individual settlers. Homestead Act APUSH questions might relate to the motivations and consequences of westward expansion, as well as sociopolitical questions it raised. Here’s what you need to know about this important land grant legislation for the AP U.S. History exam.
What is the Homestead Act?
The Homestead Act was passed in 1862. According to the act, settlers moving into the western territories could claim 160 acres of public land in exchange for a small filing fee. The settler also had to commit to living on the land for five continuous years. After this period of residency ended, the homesteader could claim private ownership of the land.
Important year to note for the Homestead Act:
1862: The Homestead Act is passed.
Why is the Homestead Act so important?
The Homestead Act helped to speed up westward expansion in the United States. Several thousand claims were made by the end of the Civil War, and eventually 2 million homesteaders would help develop and cultivate the American West. The act made it possible for small farmers and freed slaves to pursue the American Dream. It was also a boon to the railroads as they expanded their lines into the western territories.
The Homestead Act is also important for its controversy. Congress had tried to pass a homestead act for decades, but the measures were always blocked by Southern politicians. The South feared westward expansion, because it would likely tip the balance between free and slave states, thus diminishing the South’s economic and political power. The Homestead Act of 1862 was only passed after the southern states seceded from the Union.
What are some historical people and events related to the Homestead Act?
- 1861: The South secedes from the Union, allowing the passage of the Homestead Act
- Abraham Lincoln: signed the act into law
What example question about the Homestead Act might come up on the APUSH exam?
“When we consider the vast amount of excellent land lying immediately on and along the line of the Pacific Railroad, as well as the vast unsettled tracts in all Western Kansas, to not notice the land elsewhere, we cannot but feel that the passage of the Homestead Bill will form a new era in Western emigration. The field is now fully open to the honest and energetic farmer, who wishes to secure himself a home on easy terms.”
– The Big Blue Union, 1862 (Source)
A homestead act had long been championed by northern politicians because:
A) speculators were claiming large tracts out west and bringing in slave labor to build large farms.
B) the Pacific Railroad was foundering because of the limited settlement of the western territories.
C) much of the land up for public federal grants was being illegally claimed by southern slaveholders.
D) the spread of small farms into the western territories would limit the power of the slave economy.
The correct answer is (D). It was rightly believed by both northern and southern politicians that westward expansion would encourage an influx of small, independent farmers into the western territories. These farmers were uninterested in (and incapable of instituting) slave labor. Thus, Republicans believed that by giving away free land to families, and encouraging those families to live on and cultivate public land, a homestead act would diminish slave power by stopping the spread of slavery and setting up competition for the southern agricultural economy.